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01-07-19 07:52 PM - Post#5002    

GENEVA, March 4 (Xinhua) -- With the Syrian conflict entering its sixth-year, the fourth and latest round of intra-Syrian peace talks ended with unusual positivity on Friday, as proximity discussions yielded an agenda for future negotiations seeking to broker a political end to the conflict.

While no major breakthrough was achieved in talks mediated by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, the diplomat lauded the fact that rival delegations agreed on a credible plan to guide the next round of discussions set to kick off later this month.

With expectations set to a minimum from the outset, de Mistura commended the "serious discussions" he and his team were able to have with the Syrian government delegation and officials representing opposition factions seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The fact that all invitees stayed until the end was also considered an improvement from past rounds, and added to what was seen as an auspicious start when opposing delegations sat in the same room in a ceremony marking the start of talks on Feb. 23.

This was particularly symbolic since the last time parties met under the auspices of the UN was in April 2016, a month which saw negotiations put on hold amid a humanitarian meltdown and systemic violence in the Middle East country.

With delegations unable to see eye-to-eye on a range of issues last year, the envoy's comments offered hope that future negotiations will finally be able to focus on substantive political issues that continue to divide opposing delegations.

This entails negotiating over what de Mistura called the "four baskets".

While the three first "baskets" are directly related to UN Security Council resolution 2254, namely the formation of credible and inclusive governance, UN-supervised elections and the drafting of a new constitution, the inclusion of a "fourth basket" is an important development.

Indeed, this final item relates to counter-terrorism issues, and its inclusion on the agenda can be seen as a win for the Syrian government delegation, which has sought to make this controversial topic a priority in the past.

Its inclusion on the agenda could also mirror the changing geopolitical context in which this year's talks are taking place.

Since the last round was held last year, rebel factions have lost eastern Aleppo, one of their main strongholds in the country, and are increasingly on the back foot as Damascus seeks to consolidate its military gains on the ground.

The Syrian army, backed by Russia, has indeed managed to recapture large swathes of territory not only from rebel fighters, but also from extremist factions including the Islamic State (IS).

This means that al-Assad is in a significantly better place to impose preconditions on talks, such as making the fight against terrorism a priority, while substantially lowering his willingness to compromise.

In light of this, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which is the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group, may find it harder and harder to exert pressure on its government counterpart.

Its disunity is also a problem, though talks between HNC representatives and the Moscow Platform, one of two moderate opposition groups, could be a sign that unification is in the making.

The geopolitical circumstances in which this year's round of peace talks are set also transcend Syrian borders.

Both Russia and Turkey not only brokered a ceasefire which came into effect at the end of last year, but also organized, together with Iran, two rounds of talks in the Kazak capital of Astana to monitor the shaky truce.

The UN has highlighted that these talks are important, and that they complement the political track in Geneva.

While this may be true, they also serve as a tacit reminder that the U.S.' role in Syria is no longer as relevant as it was in the past.

With the fifth round of Syria peace talks set to resume in a few weeks' time, the UN reminded that its success is contingent on incremental trust between rival parties, improved humanitarian access and the upkeep of the ceasefire.

If this is managed, and pending discussions with the UN Secretary General and the Security Council next week, Syrians will now have to rely on the willingness of parties to end a conflict which has killed as many as 400,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

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